Local producers at forefront of preserving global vegetable diversity


The butter pea was once a legendary vegetable — a delicious, sweet pea encased in a tender, edible pod. A popular ingredient of French cuisine, the butter pea is mentioned frequently in recipes and literature from the 17th to the 19th centuries. But despite its culinary status, few living humans have ever tasted one; the plant eventually fell out of favour with consumers and became extinct sometime before the Second World War.

American botanist Dr. Calvin Lamborn was trying to replicate the legendary butter pea when he developed the sugar snap pea in 1979 after a decade of crossbreeding. Lamborn’s plant was an immediate sensation. Like its French precursor, it was straight, tender, delicious and edible at any stage of its growth.

If Chris Sanford has anything to do with it, the sugar snap pea will never be in danger of meeting the same fate as the butter pea. Sanford grows sugar snap peas along with more than 200 varieties of vegetables, flowers, herbs and grains on her farm in Lunenburg County. Yonder Hill Farm is a seed-producing operation, growing plants to collect and sell seeds to gardeners and small-scale farmers.

“We’re non-certified organic,” says Sanford. “Everything is naturally grown and we don’t spray anything.”

Sanford has been passionate about saving seeds for a long time. A native of Maine, she started working on farms in the early 2000s. “It was a time when sustainability was becoming a big word in the agricultural business,” she says. “To me, seeds always seemed like a critical component of sustainability. You can’t grow your own food if you can’t get seeds.”

She moved to Nova Scotia in 2009 to take the job as garden manager at Windhorse Farm in Lunenburg County. The farm — well-known as a sustainable forestry operation — was branching into seed production. Managing the seed business was part of Sanford’s job. “I realized that I really loved plant propagation, more than just growing vegetables to sell. I feel good giving seeds to people to grow their own food.”

In November 2011, Sanford and her partner, Garrett Lauten, purchased their own farm, an aging property near Bridgewater, complete with a dilapidated barn, over- grown orchards and fields that hadn’t been mowed in years. They registered the name Yonder Hill Farm a few months later. The couple have been developing the farm and business and living a home-steading lifestyle ever since.

Today Yonder Hill Farm is one of a handful of Nova Scotia seed producers. They sell their products directly to gardeners from their website and at events around the province.

But seeds are more than a business for Sanford. They are a resource as fundamental as water, created by 10,000 years of crossbreeding, experimentation and serendipity. Losing a seed means losing a plant forever. “It’s crucial to preserve the genetic heritage we have left,” says Sanford.

There is an illusion of abundance when it comes to seeds, she says. To the average consumer, it looks like there are seeds everywhere: on grocery store racks, in seed catalogs, at craft markets and local garden centres. But from the small suppliers to the big seed companies, almost everyone is selling the same seeds, repackaged from the same global sources. That leaves vast numbers of plants unprotected from the threat of extinction. Seventy-five per cent of all vegetable varieties have been lost since 1900, while a third of those that are left could disappear in the next 20 years.

Many gardeners look to “heritage” or “heirloom” designations as the key to preserving traditional vegetables, but that can be mis- leading, according to Sanford. Heritage is a term used to refer to any vegetable or garden plant that is more than 50 years old, regardless of how popular it is. The sugar snap pea will achieve heritage status in 2029, regardless of its popularity. “More than preserving heritage vegetables, we need to improve the incredible diversity of seeds on the planet on the local level,” says Sanford. “Local seed producers are critically important, and we need to support them.”

The support system has been improving in recent years. In 2013, the Bauta Family Initiative On Canadian Seed Security was launched with the goal of building a powerful seed system across the country by providing programs and support for local seed savers. Yonder Hill Farm has been involved with the Initiative since the beginning.

Stephanie Hughes is the Atlantic regional coordinator for the Bauta Family Initiative. She works with about 100 stakeholders in the region — farmers, agricultural scientists, seed libraries and community gardens — providing education, information and support while growing a regional network of like-minded seed savers. “Farmers like Chris and Garrett play a huge part in our food security here in Canada,” she says.

“There are a number of vegetable varieties that would be gone forever if it wasn’t for Yonder Hill.”

Sanford and Lauten do their part for diversity by growing as many types of vegetables and seed crops as they can. Some of their products are the descendants of plants that Sanford first grew 20 years ago. Many are from seeds that the couple discovered at agricultural events or seed swaps. A few are chance crops that grew unexpectedly in the garden — like the new sweet pepper variety that Yonder Hill Farm just released. “I like to call them the heritage varieties of the future,” says Sanford.

Yonder Hill is also integral to pre- serving Lunenburg County’s most iconic vegetable, the Tancook Island cabbage. The hardy cabbage was the source of a popular local brand of sauerkraut until the company folded during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yonder Hill is currently the only commercial source for Tancook Island cabbage seeds, with supplies selling out quickly over the last two seasons.

Seed-saving is vital to our agricultural future, says Sanford, and despite the efforts of organizations like the Bauta Initiative, there is still a long way to go before the world’s seed supplies are secure. It’s vital for hobby farmers and gardeners to step up and do their part, to keep those varieties alive that might not have a lot of commercial appeal. “We won’t be doing it forever,” she says. “Who’s going to continue producing our seeds and the genetic lines we’ve developed after we retire? That’s a huge concern.”

For More Information
The Bauta Family Initiative On Canadian Seed Security
Stephanie Hughes, Regional Program Coordinator: Atlantic Canada shughes@weseedchange.org

Yonder Hill Farm

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